Out of Illinois, a Transformed Romney

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It's a new Mitt after yesterday's win in Illinois -- and a fresh reminder for Obama's Chicago-based reelection team of the challenge ahead of them.

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Apart from the overarching and near-term reality of Tuesday's Republican presidential primary in Illinois -- a very solid Mitt Romney victory and the suggestion of nomination inevitability -- there was the actual performance of the winner. It was rather impressive, as much for its stagecraft and performance as it was for the election day bottom line.

Yes, Illinois is a state where Romney always should have done well, especially given a moderate Republican heritage. And he benefited from an overwhelming financial advantage, the lack of much of a state GOP organization and the expense of the important Chicago television market.

With retail politics at a minimum, TV was king and, at least in Chicago, his actual spending --including both his own funds and money spent by outside super PACs on his behalf -- advantage was probably closer to 20-1 over chief rival Rick Santorum than the much-mentioned 7-1. If his resources didn't guarantee victory in some other states, Illinois was a reminder of the potency of money in politics and impact of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

It helped explain why Romney did slightly better than Santorum with conservative Republicans, even among practicing Catholics who attend mass at least once a week. Yes, the Mormon won that latter group, too.

But high above Chicago's dazzling Millennium Park, one of the grandest public spaces anywhere, President Obama's reelection maestros had a bird's eye view of the race. Top Obama adviser David Axelrod, who was at reelection headquarters Tuesday, also surely saw a different prospective opponent in Illinois. The stiff and awkward Romney of Iowa and New Hampshire had not been totally transformed, for sure, but he was a far more animated, engaged, and smoother politician in the last week.

Mike Flannery, a reporter for the local Fox station and perhaps the city's savviest and most experienced political observer, has tracked Romney through the winter snows and been nonplussed. He saw a politician back then playing not to lose, nervous of fumbling, and in the process proving uninspiring and exhibiting a virtual recipe for defeat.

But in recent days, be it in downstate and more rural Peoria or in the vote-rich Chicago suburbs, he saw someone who struck him as dramatically different, "night and day," Flannery said. The pre-scripted Romney loosened up, shed a teleprompter at most stops, and was willing to take seemingly spontaneous, hostile questions with an air of confidence not rife with his often reflexive born-to-the-manor snootiness.

"And, generally, he knocked it out of the park," said Flannery. That included how he dealt with a woman at a Bradley University forum who was attacking his position on Planned Parenthood and free birth control. You want free stuff, asked Romney, then vote for the other guy -- meaning President Obama.

And, as for his approach to Obama, his tone is changing somewhat, from an outright hostility to a more doleful, regretful air. Along with that, he is getting a bit better in trying to relate policy proposals to people's actual lives. He's got a long way to go but, then, he's got a long way to get it right.

That slight change in tone might serve him better. Axelrod and colleagues surely know that they are inspecting an improving prospective rival, who has already proven that he can play nasty with opponents and exhibit the sort of ruthlessness that can come in very handy.

And the Obama attack machine won't necessarily have any leg up on the vitriol exhibited toward Romney from his own GOP ranks. The Republican noise machine, with adroit practitioners like Rush Limbaugh, has spent months pillorying Romney -- and he's still very much standing. Remember those magazine covers of Rick Perry? Remember the case for his potency? He's now just Romney roadkill.

No slaves to ideological purity, the conservative diehards will presumably be on his side if it's him versus Obama, whom they'll portray as a freedom-hating socialist who relies on meanie "Chicago-style politics," whatever that actually means. (Given the roughly 25 percent city turnout Tuesday, maybe that style is somnolence.)

That will combine with the basic electoral map reality that the Obama camp knows all too well. His reelection team will have to thread a needle to win. A bunch of states he won last time are unlikely to go his way this time. He's no longer the fresh, new face. He won't have the same wind at his back. He probably won't have a rival whose campaign is quite as untidy as that of John McCain.

The Obama staff knows it did virtually everything right last time and McCain still got over 46 percent of the vote.

His team is armed with tons of money and expertise and all the data you'd want to know about the voters you need to win.

It will be a slog for them, just as it has been for Romney to win his own party's nomination. But they probably already knew that.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of the Daily Beast/Newsweek and an MSNBC analyst. He's former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. More

James Warren is a former manager, editor and Washington bureau chief of The Chicago Tribune. An ink-stained wretch, he's labored at The Newark Star-Ledger, The Chicago Sun-Times, and the Tribune in a variety of positions, including financial reporter, legal affairs reporter-columnist, labor writer, media writer-columnist and features editor. The Washingtonian once tagged him one of the town's 50 most influential journalists (he thinks he was 46, the number worn by Andy Pettitte, a pitcher for his beloved New York Yankees). He's a political analyst for MSNBC. He was recently publisher and president of the Chicago Reader, and is now policy columnist for Business Week and twice-a-week Chicago columnist for The New York Times (you can find his handiwork on the paper's website and on new Chicago pages produced for Friday's and Sunday's Midwest print editions by the nonprofit Chicago News Cooperative, which he held to start). A native New Yorker, he's a happy resident of the wonderful, if ethically challenged, City of Chicago, where he lives just north of decaying Wrigley Field with his Pulitzer Prize-winning wife, Cornelia, and their sons, Blair and Eliot. Blair's t-ball team is, yes, the Yankees.

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